Displaced Georgians look to US military for hope, aid

Some 240 war refugees are crammed into a former office building and drinking water is scarce, but people are making do, a Georgian told U.S. officials at a makeshift shelter Thursday.

A top U.S. military official said he hoped to help the Georgians return home as soon as possible.

The head of the U.S. European Command, U.S. Gen. John Craddock, who is also NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, visited a building housing hundreds of Georgians displaced since fighting with Russia began Aug. 7 over Georgia's separatist province of South Ossetia.

Inside the spacious lobby of what was an office building, kids kicked a dirty soccer ball while Craddock visited the site with Henrietta Holsman Fore, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The agency is helping oversee delivery of U.S. aid, including bedding, medicine, soap, food and infant formula.

About 80,000 people displaced by the Russian-Georgian fighting are housed in more than 600 centers in and around the capital, Tbilisi. In all, the United Nations says 158,000 have been uprooted by the fighting, including thousands who fled to Russia.

Marina Katanadz from the Georgian village of Avnevi — which is near South Ossetia but inside Georgia proper — told Craddock about the cramped, former office that she was staying in with her 5-year-old-daughter and 3-year-old son.

"We are OK but our drinking water supply is a problem," she told the general.

But just Thursday morning, a fresh load of blankets and hygenic supplies from USAID had shown up, and Craddock assured her that more humanitarian assistance was on its way as longer-term solutions were worked out.

"We want to get you back to your village as soon as possible," he told her, while her son slept on a lone mattress placed on the plank flooring.

In the hallway outside, desks were lined up against a wall, stacked with books, pulled from the various rooms to make space for people to sleep in the former municipal offices.

Katanadz said she and her children had been at the facility since Aug. 9 after fleeing her village while it was being shelled by Russian forces.

After the general left, she said she felt encouraged.

"This is hope," she said — but she added: "I hope they remember us."

Craddock then met with Georgian officials, and said the U.S. was "committed and we will remain so" to providing aid to Georgia.

Later, Fore said it was crucial that people be able to return to their homes if they can, but added that U.S. aid efforts would continue for the immediate future.

"At this point, we're going to keep going" she said, referring to the more than US$10.7 million worth of U.S. aid that has been sent to Tbilisi aboard 20 flights since Aug. 19.

In addition, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer loaded with humanitarian aid was heading to Georgia on Thursday through Turkey's straits, the U.S. military said.

It was the first of three U.S. Navy ships that will carry supplies such as blankets, hygiene kits and baby food to Georgia. The Turkish straits, the Dardanelles and Bosporus, are the only naval passage between the Mediterranean and Black Sea.

The guided destroyer USS McFaul left Souda Bay, Crete, on Wednesday; a coast guard cutter, Dallas, is to leave Souda Bay on Friday, and the command ship USS Mount Whitney is leaving from Gaeta, Italy.

Paul Farley, a spokesman for the Souda Bay U.S. naval base, said all three ships were expected to reach Georgia "within the next week." He did not give their destination.

[Source: Associated Press, Herald Tribune Europe, Tbilisi, 21Aug08]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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